Agassiz Hall was the name of the building that housed the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute, the fabled school for teachers that ironically overlooked Highland Beach, and was used by black vacationers until it was taken over by the East Chop Beach Club. Its namesake was Louis Agassiz, a Swiss-American biologist who founded a summer school on Penikese, one of the Elizabeth Islands. It was given to him in 1873 by John Anderson, a philanthropist who admired Agassiz’s extensive work and contributions to science.

Agassiz held several degrees and was an innovative scholar of zoology, geology and related areas whose work was widely acknowledged and respected, but he turned out not to be one of our people. It was said that his revulsion on encountering African-Americans in the United States caused him to spend much of his career rejecting Darwin’s evolution and attempting to prove human races were of different origins (polygenism). This is contrary to the widely accepted concept of monogenism, the single origin of humanity.

The John Anderson school collapsed soon after Agassiz’s death, but it is considered a model for the Woods Hole Institute, and the Martha’s Vineyard Summer Institute established in 1878 by Colonel Homer B. Sprague. With a modest start and few students the Institute began its career without funds or buildings. Instead it held meetings “in cottage parlors and on piazzas, over offices and in tents.”

Martha’s Vineyard was chosen due to its favorable conditions; “cool, quiet and health-giving... a summer watering-place, where the breezes, from whatever quarter they blow, are cooled and purified by the surrounding ocean, overlooking Vineyard Sound, the great marine highway between New York and Boston.” Of course Cottage City fit the bill.

The business model was equally modest. Each department head contributed to the expense and was paid by the tuition fees from his (or her) own pupils. Open public lectures were given in halls and churches (Union Chapel was one) of interest to the folks of Cottage City, and the school ingratiated itself in a way to receive wide support. After four years, the Vineyard Grove Company gave the school a lot. Subscribers contributed enough money for a building with 16 classrooms, which was completed in 1882. It was said that over the years, thousands of students came from “every state and territory in the union, as well as representatives from Canada, Mexico, South America, the Hawaiian Islands, and even England.” The school was a forerunner to many summer schools to follow.

Instruction was given in esoteric courses such as botany, didactics (the science of teaching), drawing, elocution (controlled speaking), English Literature, entomology (the study of insects), French, Geology, German, Greek, Latin, mineralogy, pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching), philosophy, physical culture, phonography (a writing system representing sounds by individual symbols), vocal music and zoology. The school was held each July through August until the oldest of the summer schools closed in 1907.

The Institute described itself as “ educational institution whose beneficial influence has already been felt in every State of the Union; an institution that knows, in dispensing its benefits, no distinction of creed, race, or color.”

So it was not surprising to see in a photograph from the Vineyard Gazette’s archives taken in 1904, of 67 people (47 women, 19 men and one toddler) that one of the women was black. Agassiz wasted quite a bit of his time proving “the good is oft interred with their bones.”

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum sponsors Appraisal Day with Skinner, Inc. The public is invited to bring prized objects and treasures (no coins, stamps, jewelry or musical instruments) to the museum library to be examined by appraisers from Skinner. Items may be consigned for sale by Skinner with a portion of the proceeds benefitting the museum. Reservations are required and the cost is $15 for one item or three for $40. Call 508-627-4441, ext. 123 or email

The Oak Bluffs Library has scheduled the annual Library Friends Holiday Party for Saturday, Dec. 3 from noon to 2 p.m.. The plan is to “eat good food, make holiday crafts, and sit on Santa’s lap” if you’re so inclined.

Friends of Oak Bluffs have a Dine To Donate on Thursday, Dec. 8 at Offshore Ale for lunch and dinner. Portions of the proceeds go to the Friends of Oak Bluffs who help keep the town decorated.

In making that list you’re checking twice remember there are gigantic deals on great goods to greet your generosity all over Circuit avenue.

Keep your foot on a rock.

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